UN Nuclear Watchdog ‘Gravely Concerned’ About Ukraine’s Nuclear Power Plants

Europe’s largest power plant is now under Russian control, the agency also confirmed
Rafael Mariano Grossi
Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA. Image: Guo Chen/Xinhua via Getty Images

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a nuclear watchdog agency to the United Nations, said Wednesday that Russia’s occupation of a growing number of nuclear power plants in Ukraine constitutes grave security risk. 

Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told the agency’s board of governors in a speech Wednesday morning that he is “gravely concerned” about the safety and security of the country’s nuclear facilities during the ongoing war. 

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“The situation in Ukraine is unprecedented,” Grossi said. “It is the first time a military conflict is happening amidst the facilities of a large, established nuclear power programme.”  

After seizing Chernobyl late last week, Russian officials told the agency Wednesday that invaders had gained control of Zaporizhzhia, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, located just west of the separatist-held Donbas conflict zone. The plant houses six of the country’s operational nuclear power reactors.

“The safety and security of nuclear facilities, and nuclear and other radioactive material in Ukraine must under no circumstances be endangered,” Grossi added. 

The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine told the IAEA that it was in regular contact with all of its nuclear power plants and that all were operating normally, per a statement from the watchdog agency, which also confirmed that radiation levels around Zaporizhzhia remained “normal.”

But Grossi emphasized in his speech that ‘normal’ is merely a technical phrase. In reality, “there is nothing normal about the circumstances under which the professionals at Ukraine’s four Nuclear Power Plants are managing to keep the reactors that produce half of Ukraine’s electricity working.” 

He stressed that danger to staff at these facilities constitutes broader danger to the country’s nuclear safety and energy security. Around half of Ukraine’s electricity comes from nuclear power, and military action poses threats to these facilities from all directions: Most severely, a stray missile could damage part of a plant or cause all-out nuclear disaster. Any number of small false moves could disrupt the monitoring or maintenance of reactors, turbines and the likes within aging plants, bringing them offline. 

Grossi told the Board of Governors that he’s called for “restraint” from Russian troops to avoid all possible scenarios. Holding staff hostage, for instance, as was the case at Chernobyl as of Friday, impedes their ability to safely operate facilities, and could put the country’s nuclear safety in jeopardy, he noted. 

“Any such incident could have severe consequences, aggravating human suffering and causing environmental harm,” Grossi said. “It is also imperative to ensure that the brave people who operate, regulate, inspect and assess the nuclear facilities in Ukraine can continue to do their indispensable jobs safely, unimpeded and without undue pressure.”